“Philosophy of Film and Television Narrative”: How NBC’s ‘Community’ Shatters the Boundaries Between Reality and Fiction
Posted on Friday, October 14th, 2011 by Adam Quigley
[The following contains spoilers for the first four episodes of Season 3 of Community.]
Every year, I eagerly anticipate any film or TV series that will engage me in the trials of its characters, and encourage me to consider how its using those trials to communicate something perceptive, challenging or entertaining about the world around us. Community, alongside FX’s Louie, is a rare example of a comedy show that succeeds at doing just that.
In under 22 minutes.
Arrested Development may have thrown down the gauntlet for most intricately layered TV sitcom, but Community has picked that gauntlet up and is running wild with it. I already feel comfortable proclaiming this week’s episode, “Remedial Chaos Theory”, to be the absolute best episode of Community thus far. Yes, better than the Goodfellas tribute “Contemporary American Poultry”. Yes, better than the zombie halloween episode “Epidemiology”. Yes, better even than the everyone’s favorite action parody, “Modern Warfare”.
High praise, no doubt. But what else is one to do when confronted with one of the best half hours of television in the history of the medium?
Part of me wants to declare this the “thesis episode” of the series, and the only reason I hesitate to do so is because the show has yet to reach a point where I know what its limits are. Sometimes that can be a bad quality for a TV series to possess (see: Heroes), but Community has been slyly testing its boundaries for three seasons now, and every time it does it seems to come out of the experiment stronger and more fully realized.
This episode in particular worked on a stunning number of levels — but I want to focus specifically on how it relates to the series as whole, rather than why it was so uniquely funny or what it means for the characters going forward. (Although those could be entire articles in and of themselves, and it’s for that exact reason that any of what I’m about to discuss holds as much weight as it does.)
Looked at simply, “Remedial Chaos Theory” was a joint exploration of the individual roles these characters play in the show and their mutual/antagonized relationships with one another, set in motion by an elaborately calibrated cause-and-effect mechanism that served as the central conceit of the episode. With the roll of a single die, the series branched off into seven separate timelines, each offering its own set of conflicts, resolutions, and/or hints at what’s to come.
The amount of carefully plotted set-ups in this episode is staggering. Not only did the characters’ timelines demonstrate how any one character can drastically affect the group’s dynamic, but each individual timeline also fulfilled its own progression of the characters’ relationships, confronting every possible outcome of their firmly established yet ever-evolving dynamic. And while ultimately only one of those timelines is the real one, it remains that these were all viable directions the story could’ve taken, which says a hell of a lot more about the current state of the group than a traditional, linear timeline ever could.
Moreover, by basing the episode’s conceit around what happens when a single presence is removed from the group for no more than a minute, its ultimate message is rendered all the more poignant.
“The universe is an endless raging sea of randomness. Our job isn’t to fight it but to weather it together,” says Abed, having caught the die before it can fall, thus removing chaos from the equation. “It won’t matter what happens to us as long as we stay honest and accepting of each other’s flaws and virtues.”
Jeff, meanwhile, having constructed the die ruse simply as a way to get out of having to get the pizzas himself, is then forced to do exactly that. This timeline — the Jeff-less timeline — is the only one where nothing bad happens. He was the one responsible for introducing that element of chaos, just as he does in every episode. The group relies on him to anchor them as their leader, but he’s actually the one who forces them to remain in a state of unending dysfunctionality.
“You guys see what happens when I leave you alone, huh?” Jeff says upon his return, finding the characters happily dancing.
Notice in the above image that every character is color coded to match the spectrum of the rainbow, with the sole exception of Jeff. He is the darkness at the center of the rainbow.
Contrasting Jeff as the protagonist/antihero is Abed, the only one in tune with the show as we the audience are experiencing it. (Or controlling it, depending on your perspective.)
Without Jeff, the group is happy. They get along perfectly, and there is no need for conflict.
Without Abed, the group is normal. They confront their relationships head-on, and only conflict results.
These two characters facilitate each other’s integral function within the narrative, creating a distinct juxtaposition between the bitter, cynical reality of how people actually behave with the heightened nature of how conflicts unfold in the comfortable realm of film and television.
Jeff’s presence may not be what’s best for these characters, but we need him for the show to exist at all. He provides the always reliable element of reality-stricken friction within the group, and Abed supplies its much-needed relation to the silly, lightweight world of pop culture entertainment. And it’s only because of the former that the latter has any meaning. Each is conducive to the other, consistently being used to influence what’s ultimately a pretty strained balance between keeping these characters together and ripping them apart.
And despite the show maintaining an underlying foundation of reality — which is enforced by characters who have a grounded, heartfelt and frequently imperfect earnestness to them — there’s no disputing that each of those characters is a cartoonish figure in their own right. This dynamic makes sense in a lot of ways, given that Abed is responsible for assembling them. In the show’s very first episode, he was the one who hand-picked everyone that would fill out the remainder of the study group (gathered at the request of Jeff, who was attempting to woo Britta), initiating every conflict that has resulted since. Point being: Abed’s influence on the group is what brings out their goofy nature. And as learned during “Remedial Chaos Theory”, a reality without him is no fun at all.
Unifying both Jeff and Abed — and the group as a whole — is the “magic table” where they congregate, which even Jeff came to violently acknowledge in the Season 3 premiere, “Biology 101″, one of the rare instances where he’s accepted the underlying truth of Abed’s perspective (of course only happening when he’s faced with the prospect of evolving into the group equivalent of Pierce).
I’ve touched on this dichotomy before, when I geeked out over Community‘s stop-motion Christmas special, but this is the first time the show has afforded itself the opportunity to directly highlight that conflicted yet necessary yin/yang relationship.
So for any viewer who argues their preference for episodes that are more character-driven (read: universally accessible) over those that are more meta and parodic (read: esoteric as all hell, demanding a familiarity with pop culture that not everyone possesses), please realize that the functionality of the show relies on both going hand-in-hand, and that the constantly shifting balance between the two is what keeps the series so fresh and funny and unpredictable from episode to episode.
Obviously not everyone is going to welcome that unpredictability, as it threatens to further expand the rift between the reality of these characters and the fictionalized world that surrounds them, but then, that’s sort of the whole point of the show. While it may be the high concept episodes where the meta subtext is brought to the forefront, that satirization and self-examination seeps into every episode. It’s the series’ modus operandi. To complain about the show breaking the fourth wall too much or leaning too hard on Abed would be to miss the very essence of what Community is and aims to be.
If you doubt that, consider the following: Last week’s episode, the boldly mean-spirited “Competitive Ecology”, featured the whole group being horrible to each other, and even more horrible to a good-hearted, well-adjusted outsider, Todd. But did it actually happen? You may recall that this week’s episode opens with this exchange, with Annie and Britta discussing whether or not they’re at the right apartment:
“Didn’t they say 304?”
“No, 303. I wrote it down twice.”
This is because in production code terms, 303 = Season 3, Episode 3. Which would make this the third episode of the season, not the fourth.
Does that mean that last week’s episode was actually an extension of the Abed-less timeline from this week’s episode? That would certainly explain why Shirley knew about Britta’s predilection for marijuana, a fact she only learned of in that timeline, and why Pierce comments that “these are the only guys that I’ve ever told” about having sex with Eartha Kitt in an airplane bathroom, something he was interrupted from revealing in the real timeline. Or does this actually mean the timeline we suspect to be the real one isn’t the real one after all?
UPDATE: Alas, the theory was not meant to be. Community creator Dan Harmon has addressed the issue on his blog, clarifying the episode swap of 303 and 304, and assuring fans that the real timeline is the one where Abed catches the die and Jeff gets the pizza.
Feel free to draw your own conclusions. Either way, the takeaway is the same: Even with something as small as the roll of a die, this group is one misstep away from succumbing to chaos, highlighting just how fragile their dynamic really is, and how little it takes to shift the aforementioned balance from “loveable TV misfits” to “a bunch of self-absorbed assholes.”
Also, I’m calling it now: This won’t be the last we see of Evil Troy and Evil Abed. We’ll almost assuredly be returning to that timeline before the season is up. (Hopefully in the form of a balls-to-the-wall season finale? Please?) After all, the interaction of parallel worlds was already affirmed by Professor Cligoris (played by Martin Starr) in “Geography of Global Conflict”. “The science checks out,” he says. If that weren’t hint enough, during the tag at the end of this week’s episode, we revert back from the evil doppelgänger timeline to the real one, and Abed notices something is askew. “What’s wrong?” asks Troy. “I don’t know…” says Abed. “I guess nothing.”
I expect I’m not alone when I say: I dearly hope he’s wrong.
You can watch the full episode of “Remedial Chaos Theory” below.